Top honour for hero RIR officer who shielded one of his men from grenade
A heroic Northern Ireland soldier who acted as a human shield to save one of his men during a Taliban bomb attack has said he is “humbled” after being awarded one of the UK’s highest honours for gallantry.
Lieutenant Paul McFarland (28) received the Military Cross for the “decisive courage” shown when a grenade was hurled into a compound and landed just one metre from his second-in-command during a bloody six months in Afghanistan.
The Royal Irish Regiment soldier, who was on his first operational tour of duty, had been based at Saidabad, a Taliban stronghold in the Nad-e-Ali region of central Helmand. He had been on patrol with nine other men and had just cleared a compound when they came under attack.
“I heard a pop from the other side of a 12ft mud wall,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “It was a familiar sound, but it came in an unfamiliar place and time. It landed near one of my corporals and my initial reaction was to get over, try and grab him and get him out of the danger area.
“We had taken about three steps and I pushed him towards the ground. It was through no sense of duty — just because I was leading the platoon. He was just one of my guys and if he’d seen the grenade first he’d have done the same. That’s the sort of complete trust that’s built up in training.
“Once the grenade detonated I felt the blast come across my back. It sprayed shrapnel against the walls, but ground outside the compound was irrigated and I think that quashed most of the blast, but, even so, we were incredibly lucky not to sustain any injuries.
“We tried to kill or capture the insurgent, but to no avail. That was probably the closest call during the tour for me, but other guys also had close calls,” he added.
The Royal Irish Regiment lost three soldiers — Ranger Aaron McCormick (22) from Coleraine, Ranger David Dalzell (20) from Bangor and Lance Corporal Stephen McKee (27) from Banbridge — between October 2010 and April.
Lt McFarland’s citation from senior commanders read: “Had he not acted as he did... the soldier would most certainly have been killed or, at the very least, catastrophically wounded.”
Last night he joked that his family did not realise the significance of his accolade until they heard the “media hype”.
“I tried to protect my family from the realities of what it’s like for soldiers deployed to Afghanistan,” he said.
“I don’t think my mum comprehended the magnitude of the award until she saw me on the television.
“It’s a strange, surreal and very humbling experience.”
RIR Sergeant Peter Keogh (30), who ran 150m across open ground under fire, to reach a second team of soldiers who had become pinned down by the enemy, was also awarded the Military Cross.
General Sir Nick Parker, commander-in-chief UK land forces, described Paul and Peter as “role models for their generation”.
The honours will be presented at a later date.